Following months of discussion and several postponements, Portland city councilors voted 8-1 Monday night to allow off-leash dogs in Baxter Woods at only certain times of the day and certain times of the year.
Councilor Nick Mavodones cast the opposing vote, although several councilors said the outcome was not ideal.
The plan to restrict off-leash dogs came at the recommendation of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, which voted for the plan in March despite howls of protest from dog owners who wished to be able to continue to walk their pets off-leash.
Under the approved plan dogs will be allowed off-leash from 5 a.m.-9 a.m. and 3 p.m.-10 p.m. from Aug. 1-March 31. Dogs must be on 8-foot leashes at all times from April 1-July 1.
Ethan Hipple, who was approved as the full-time director of Parks, Recreation, and Facilities, told the council Baxter Woods is a unique property that provides more than 32 acres of woods in a fairly dense neighborhood. It has a pond, meadows, vernal pools, and 1 1/2 miles of trails. He said it has also developed a reputation for being a dog park.
More than any other city property, Hipple said, Baxter Woods draws the most complaints about off-leash dogs, ranging from injuries and attacks to discarded pet waste.
“We think it’s appropriate to rebalance what is occurring in that property,” he said.
Hipple said the period when dogs are not permitted off-leash will help allow nesting ground birds to reproduce. Part of the park will also be dedicated to a habitat restoration area for these birds, as Maine Audubon recommended to the city.
“We don’t want to propose something that makes us feel better,” he said. “We want to propose something substantive.”
When they are allowed off-leash, Hipple said, dogs must also be under voice control, which basically means they come when they are called. Having dogs required to be on leashes during the day lines up with the schedule of nearby schools that may bring students to the park.
Several councilors described the plan as a compromise.
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who chairs the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, said it was “heavily litigated” by the committee, and described himself as someone who thought dogs should be able “to run without hindrance.”
“But as the conversation went around and the proposal came to council, what became clear to me was the proposal from staff was the most reasonable compromise,” Thibodeau said.
He said the Baxter Woods deed requires city officials to be good trustees of the public space for every member of the community. He said the “reasonable compromise” creates a safe space for all residents, including people who wish to have their dogs off-leash.
Councilor Justin Costa said he lives in the neighborhood and understands both sides of the argument. He said he can appreciate parents with young children who might not be comfortable taking their children to a park where a dog can run up to them, but he also understands those who have been taking their dogs to the woods for years and allowing them to run free.
“For me, I will with some hesitancy support the compromise tonight,” Costa said. “It’s as reasonable and well thought through a compromise as we’re likely to get.”
Mavodones said while the city has a lot of green space for dogs, it can be challenging for the elderly or people with mobility issues to use those areas. He said while he didn’t know much about the nesting patterns of ground birds, he said a “reasonable approach” would be to start with off-leash hours in the mornings and afternoons and then move forward with the habitat.
“I would like to allow off-leash dogs 12 months a year,” he said.
Councilor Belinda Ray noted that under the city’s emergency order for the coronavirus pandemic, dogs are prohibited from being off-leash on public property. So while a handful of public speakers described the upside of being able to have their pets off-leash, she pointed out they are breaking the law.
Kate Sykes, who is running for City Council in District 5, told councilors it appeared nesting birds seemed to be the driving force in this issue. But she said she didn’t believe there was any evidence the birds would be impacted by dogs at all.
“It feels like it was just a way to bring forward a leash law,” Sykes said.
Mark Lesperance, a member of the Friends of Baxter Woods, submitted a 21-page document asked to present his case as Hipple had. Mayor Kate Snyder declined and instead gave Lesperance the customary three minutes, plus a one-minute extension, to make public remarks.
Lesperance said Gov. Percival Baxter, who gave the woods to the city, wanted the area to be used the way it is being used now. He also said the city didn’t consult with enough neighborhood residents on the issue.
City Council hears 1st phase of land-use code overhaul
Portland city councilors seem poised to act quickly on the so-called “Recode” plan that would overhaul land-use rules.
Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer presented the first phase of the plan to councilors in a workshop Monday night, describing the current code as “overly long, and not meeting the needs of the city at this time.”
He said the city needs the new ordinance to match the upcoming Comprehensive Plan for 2030, and that it would happen in two phases.
The first, Mazer said, is largely a “technical rewrite,” but with a few other issues tacked on, such as rules regarding parking and accessory dwelling units.
“What we have here is a leaner, more logically structured, more consistent land-use code for us to move forward with in the future,” he said. “Board members are eager to move into phase two.”
Planning Director Christine Grimando said Recode is a project “many people have touched” and which has taken countless hours of Planning Board discussion. She said a full rewrite of the city’s land-use code will have a huge impact on the city and have influence over how the city reviews new developments.
Grimando said the current 1,000-page land-use document is “not fun” and has “not holistically been evaluated since the 1950s.”
“The document is unwieldy,” she said. “We’re working to bring it into this century. It will serve us better for years to come. It’s really poised to adapt to future changes.”
Nell Donaldson, director of special projects in the city’s Parking and Transportation Division, said phase one was about streamlining existing policy to match the goals of the city by looking at existing accessory dwelling unit and parking policies.
She said the city’s goal is to reduce barriers to housing, especially in lower-density areas, where the current policy is confusing and restrictive. She also said accessory dwelling units are only one tool and alone can’t solve the city’s housing crisis.
Similarly for parking, she said the goal of this phase is to simplify parking policies. She said the city has been trying to do that where possible, often allowing development applicants to pay a fee instead of having a certain number of parking spaces, or allowing joint-use parking with nearby businesses.
“We are confident phase one gives us a good starting point for phase two,” Donaldson said.
She said phase two will have a “deep policy dive,” including looking at residential zoning, permitted uses within zones, dimensional standards, and looking at how the basic structure of the land-use code enhances or limits city goals.
“There will be policy recommendations that come out of that,” she said.
Mayor Kate Snyder said the current plan is to vote to adopt phase one of the Recode at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting.
Councilor Belinda Ray indicated that may not be enough time for councilors to fully understand the document, noting she hadn’t had a chance to read all of it, and would likely have “a lot of questions” if there isn’t a second workshop.
“I’m torn between wanting to get it passed, but also torn between having time to understand it,” Ray said.
Councilors eventually indicated they would like a second workshop ahead of the vote. Snyder suggested Oct. 15, although Ray and Councilor Justin Costa said they had a different committee meeting that night which would conflict.
“This is a major action, and it’s appropriate to take the time we need,” Costa said.
— Colin Ellis